When the results in the first round of the French regional elections start to arrive on Sunday evening, they will look disastrous for President Emmanuel Macron and disastrous for France.
Enemies of France, from the Kremlin to the editors of the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express, will celebrate a string of victories for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (who are the descendants, lest we forget, of the Nazi-allied Vichy regime of 1940-44).
They will see the victories – especially if one or two are completed in the second round – as a forecast of a Le Pen triumph in the presidential elections next April and May. They should not. There is a big difference between a victory in a region on 40% turnout and a nationwide victory on 70% to 80% turnout.
But the results should not be minimised either. The fact that Le Pen’s party will probably top the polls in six regions this Sunday – and could win at least one for the first time the following weekend – is distressing enough. It will certainly give her renewed momentum or “bounce” in the critical 10 months ahead.
Scarcely a day goes by without news to remind us that Le Pen’s purported cleansing of the party in the last decade has been incompetent, lazy or cosmetic.
Philippe Vardon, the campaign manager for the far right in the Nice-Marseille area was a leading light in a string of racist splinter groups until 2013. He was once filmed singing neo-Nazi songs and organised the distribution of pork soup to the homeless, to exclude and anger Muslims. He is now described as the “thinking head” of the Lepennist campaign in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) which may take 40% of the vote in a very low turn-out on Sunday.
In the Creuse, an RN candidate was found to have made at least 60 racist or anti-semitic comments in writing, including an “homage” to the holocaust denier Robert Faurrisson. In Corrèze, a Lepennist candidate was found to have tweeted in 2017 that she preferred to see existing mosques “blown up” than new ones built. In Gironde an RN candidate was found to have made anti-semitic comments on Facebook.
All of these candidates were dropped or suspended by the RN after their comments were revealed by the media. Philippe Vardon, the ex-neo-Nazi sympathiser, remains the “thinking head” for the party in the south-east. The man who leads the Lepennist campaign there, Thierry Mariani, a former centre-right minister, is himself one of France’s most enthusiastic apologists for Vladimir Putin and the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
None of these facts appear to have cut through to potential new RN voters this weekend. Maybe they do not care very much. More likely they don’t take regional government seriously and wish mainly to lash out at Macron, at “the system”, at the “elites”, at Covid lockdowns, at the apparent surge in random and criminal violence, at immigration, at Europe or just at the unsettling fact (to them) that you now frequently see brown and black faces in French TV advertisements.
Macron’s own failings and failures bear some responsibility. So does the exaggeration of France’s problems – including the violence problem – by all opposition politicians and by talking heads of 24-hour TV. (Fact alert: violence has increased in the last three years; it was much higher under Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007-12 and, in some respects, much higher in the 1980s).
The continuing strength of Le Pen is also a condemnation of the failure of mainstream opposition parties and politicians of centre-right and centre-left. France always hates its pouvoir of the day. It has not rolled over a government directly since 1979.
Some of those who have fallen out of love with Macron – or descended into near-hysterical hatred of him – are turning to Le Pen instead of a splintered centre-left and a disfunctional centre-right.
There are good reasons to be concerned but, first, here are some reasons not to be too concerned.
The turnout on Sunday may be as little as 40%, pollsters believe. Last time, it was over 50%. In presidential elections, it is 75 to 80%.
Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM), has failed to grow grass-roots. It will score no higher than 17 or 18% in any region. At national level Macron’s approval ratings are very high for a French president: as high as 50% in June’s Paris Match-Ifop league table of all leading French politicians. Le Pen came 28th with only 34%.
Thirdly, the bar for a Le Pen victory in a region on Sunday week is set much lower than for victory in the Presidential elections next year. To win the Presidency, you have to attract just over 50% of the vote in the two-candidate run-off. To win a region, Le Pen needs to top the poll in a second round which may include three, four or even five other party lists. She could win in, say PACA, with a score in the high 30’s or low 40’s.
Overall, the Le Pen vote looks likely to be lower nationwide than it was in 2015 when she also topped the poll in six regions in the first round but went on to win in none.
Now here are some reasons to be worried (unless you are a Le Pen fan or fellow traveller).
The Far Right was blocked in 2015 – and again at the presidential election in 2017 – by a massive shift of centre-left and centre-right votes to support Anyone-But-Le-Pen. That kind of instinct, known sometimes as the Republican Pact, has been shredded in recent years.
Some left-wing voters have persuaded themselves that Macron is as bad as Le Pen. The centre-right is split between moderate-Republican-pro-European and hard-line, Lepennist-leaning, Eurosceptic wings.
The kind of cross-party alliances and tactical voting which froze out Le Pen in the second round of the regional elections in 2015 will not function effectively this time. Nor will they function in next year’s presidential election so well as they did in the second round in 2017 when Macron beat Le Pen by 66-34%.
So can Le Pen win next year? Will she complete, belatedly, the populist hat-trick (after Brexit and Trump) which the right-wing UK tabloids were hoping and baying for in 2017?
I don’t think so. I can no longer dismiss the possibility as inconceivable as I did four years ago.
The regional elections will be a warning, even if Le Pen ends up winning only one or no regions on Sunday week. All will depend finally on the direction of the Covid pandemic (a Delta-variant fourth wave or not?) and the recovery of the French economy (which is shaping up well).
Hang on to your hats. It is going to be a bumpy, and often very nasty ride, in the next ten months.